Recently, money was extracted from the taxpayers at gunpoint to create a PBS puff piece about Nancy Pelosi. Called "Pelosi's Power," the documentary is more or less what you'd expect: Pelosi comes off as a strong if sphinxlike figure surrounded by idiot men who can't seem to stop slipping on banana peels and starting riots. Her infamous 2009 lies about waterboarding, her bizarre slandering of her own hair stylist — all of it gets overlooked in favor of the usual "you go, girl!" narrative reductionism.
Yet there is one thing about the piece that holds up...
Recently, money was extracted from the taxpayers at gunpoint to create a PBS puff piece about Nancy Pelosi. Called “Pelosi’s Power,” the documentary is more or less what you’d expect: Pelosi comes off as a strong if sphinxlike figure surrounded by idiot men who can’t seem to stop slipping on banana peels and starting riots. Her infamous 2009 lies about waterboarding, her bizarre slandering of her own hair stylist — all of it gets overlooked in favor of the usual “you go, girl!” narrative reductionism.
Yet there is one thing about the piece that holds up well: its title. Whatever else can be said about Nancy Pelosi, she knows how to wield power. And little wonder, given that she grew up in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood where her father was a political broker. Jump ahead to 2022 and, as a Capitol Hill friend of mine once put it, “You cross Pelosi, your nameplate is gone from your office door the next day.”
The same, alas, cannot be said about Republican congressional leadership. Which brings us to House minority leader Kevin McCarthy. News broke last week that McCarthy was annoyed with Donald Trump after January 6. This was hardly a shocking development: every human being not behind on his Atomwaffen Division dues was annoyed with Donald Trump after January 6. Yet the New York Times splashed this scoop on its front page. McCarthy, the Times reported, had said Trump should resign and had even asked about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.
For McCarthy, the story should have been a nothingburger, a quick jaunt down to Mar-a-Lago to smooth things over. He had, after all, already said publicly that Trump deserved some blame for January 6. And he’d only followed the same trajectory as many other conservatives, who went from expressing disgust over the riot to gradually backsliding away. Maybe the whole thing was just a self-guided tour of Statuary Hall. Maybe it was all just a dream. Whatever one thinks of such denials, McCarthy was hardly the only one to soften his stance.
Yet such is Republican fear of Trump that even a momentary blip in loyalty can break a man. What happened next called to mind the squad leader in every war movie who insists on venturing forward even as the rest of his men scream that it’s a trap. McCarthy denied that he’d made the remarks. The Times then roped its dope and released the inevitable audio, turning what should have been a 24-hour story into a fiasco.
“My Kevin,” Trump reportedly calls McCarthy. And for the privilege of remaining “My Kevin,” McCarthy was willing to lie. Politicians fib all the time, of course, but McCarthy’s mendacity did seem like the central point on a Venn diagram between “dumb” and “self-abasing.” It also put him in a terrible position. MAGA sorts are furious that McCarthy betrayed Trump. Rank-and-file Republicans are unsettled he handled this so poorly. Joe Biden took his shot.
More concerning is that this is not McCarthy’s first dunk in the tank. Back in 2015, he decided to blurt out on national TV that the Republican-established committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks was meant to discredit Hillary Clinton. This was hardly news. There were uncontacted tribes in the rainforest that understood the committee’s real purpose was to hurt Hillary’s election chances. But for the Republican House leader to say so out loud was a massive blunder — one almost impossible to imagine coming from Pelosi.
In fairness, it’s difficult to compare anyone to Pelosi, given how generationally effective she is. And it’s worth noting that McCarthy is in an extraordinarily tough position, needing to stay competitive in purple districts while also keeping the Madison Cawthorns in his caucus in line. His Republican Party is more like three or four different parties trapped under the same tent, constantly on the verge of mass fratricide. Amid such disorder, he was bound to make a misstep or six.
His latest unforced error may yet be forgotten if Republicans win big in November. Yet there’s a lesson to be learned here too, one that should have Republicans looking unironically across the aisle. Back in 2019, the Squad, that Twitter-positive quartet of progressives, revolted against Democratic leadership. What Pelosi did next was instructive. She absolutely spit-roasted AOC and friends, isolating them as the only Democrat dissenters on a key immigration vote and then demeaning them as “four people” who “don’t have any following.”
The point is that all the old political truths still hold. There is no such thing as a social media influencer on Capitol Hill. Real power lies in the ability to whip votes. Republicans who mince for the cameras might get a Fox News slot but they’re not going to stop the Biden agenda; only good leadership can do that. And good leaders cannot keep discrediting themselves a la Kevin McCarthy. The Democrats don’t.
If the Republican Party wants to govern after 2022, they’re going to need to exercise power effectively. Mitch McConnell, for all his faults, is comfortable doing that. We’ll see whether a certain other nameplate remains on an office door.